Wednesday, 20 August 2014

An Introduction...

Unlike many of the posts of NEO past, I am a new student in the NEO program, and beginning my Masters in Biology in the fall of 2014. While my research scope is still being defined, I can provide a brief overview of the projected work and its relevance.

In 2011 the world’s largest roller-compacted concrete arch-gravity dam completed construction and was put in operation on the Changuinola River in Bocas del Toro province, Panama. The dam is under the operation and ownership of AES Changuinola, a subsidiary of AES Corporation. As a result of the dam operation, more than 1000 people, including the indigenous Ngäbe people, were re-settled. The dam itself is located inside a protected forest area, the Bosque Protector de Palo Seco (BPPS), and while residents were relocated, they were allowed to remain within the BPPS (AES Changuinola, 2013).

Figure 1 Google Earth view of the research area, and the relative locations of the Changuinola I dam, and the manatee habitat.

As a result, the AES Changuinola I Dam has been the topic of controversy from indigenous rights and conservation groups (Kennedy, 2012; Kennedy, 2014). This dam is not alone in its infamy, as hydroelectric dams have been simultaneously lauded as social, environmental and economic benefactors and antagonists alike. The cross-disciplinary nature of hydraulic dams and their impact presents a complex problem for researchers to tackle.

I will be working with Dr. Brian Leung and Dr. Hector Guzman, and we will be evaluating the impacts of the Changuinola I Dam on the local watershed and human and manatee population. The exact parameters that will be evaluated have yet to be entirely fleshed out, but this will hopefully become clearer as we gather data. Fortunately, we have the support of AES Changuinola, government officials and the local environmental authority (ANAM).

The project is divided into three main components; the first is to establish the current state of the river, using the information that is publicly available (e.g. land use, rainfall, soil type, land slope, etc.) and the Environmental Impact Assessment conducted prior to construction. Any information that can be provided on the relocation and/ or consultations that occurred with the local communities will also be collected. We hope to create a snapshot of the watershed prior to the dam construction, and at present by comparing historical remote sensing imagery. The second step of our research will be to develop a watershed model of the Changuinola River using the Soil and Water Assessment Tool. The models developed will inform the last phase of the project, which is a manatee population model. This last analysis will involve the monitoring of the local manatee population and habitat to establish the effects of modifying the watershed.

While my thesis is, quite evidently, in the preliminary stages, I am very excited to get started and to be a part of the NEO program.

Here’s a brief introduction to my own background: I grew up (mostly) in Kingston, Ontario. I moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia at the age of 18 to attend Dalhousie University. I also happened to be in the first year of their new College of Sustainability program. My degree morphed into a combined honours degree in Environment, Sustainability and Society and Biology. A key component of my undergrad was a 6-month exchange trip I did to Wellington, New Zealand in my third year. It was an amazing experience to really throw myself into another country and its culture.

When my feet touched back on Canadian soil, I was ready to tackle my fourth year. I wrote my honours thesis on the effects of a water-monitoring program in First Nations communities in Atlantic Canada. It was this work in the Centre for Water Resources Studies in 2013 that lead to my employment there after graduation. I learned a great deal at the Centre, though my time there has drawn to a close as I prepare for my upcoming move (and next great adventure!) to Montreal at the end of the month.



Sunday, 3 August 2014

Connecting the Dots

As my PhD is wrapping up, I've been ruminating on what it means to be a student in the NEO program. The official website highlights the collaboration between McGill and STRI, the opportunities students will have to work with researchers from both institutions, and the goal to “facilitate a broader understanding of tropical environmental issues and the development of skills relevant to working in the tropics”. The greatest appeal of the program for me has always been the combination of science and humanities that has formed the core of the NEO program since its inception, mainly through the NEO courses. However, my research focus is limited to biology, so how do I fit into NEO?

I work with a group of marine snails, the calpytraeids, perhaps better known to the world as slipper limpets. If you’ve spent time on the east coast of North America or the north coast of Europe where it is invasive, you’ve probably seen shells of the most famous species in the group, Crepidula fornicata, washed up on the beach. The shells look a bit like slippers when turned upside-down, hence the common name. What attracted me in the group was the diversity of developmental types. Calyptraeids are a relatively big family, and have at least five different ways of going from egg to juvenile. I’m working on what is called direct development with nutritive embryos. That means that the majority of embryos produced by a female don’t actually finish their development, but are ingested by their normal siblings as they grow - a form of cannibalism. Interestingly, in the species that I study, all embryos look more or less the same until about a third of the way through their development. After that point, most embryos stop growing and are eaten. Only a small fraction will crawl out of their capsules as juveniles. It’s a bit like “The Hunger Games”, but with snails. I am studying what influences the developmental decision between becoming either a normal embryo or a food embryo, and how this mode of development may have evolved. 

Crepidula lessoni, one of the many species of slipper limpets found in Panama.

So what does that have to do with the goals of the NEO program? How does that relate to environmental problems facing Latin America today? On the surface, it wouldn’t appear to be a close fit. However, I am also studying these marine snails in the context of ecological evolutionary developmental biology, also known as eco-evo-devo. This is an emerging field that aims to understand how the environment, genes and development interact to produce changes in organisms through time. It is by nature an interdisciplinary field. And this is how I feel that my project fits into NEO. My research aims to understand the evolution of development by looking at several levels of biological organization; from genetic control and expression patterns, to environmental and seasonal influences on development, and the role of maternal and sibling interactions on individual embryos. This multi-level approach fits very well with the goals of NEO. After all, the ideals of the program are to understand environmental issues by integrating natural and social sciences in the tropics. On that front, my research is not so far outside of the goals of the program.

Locals looking for oysters while I look for snails in Veracuz, Panama.

Similar to understanding the evolution of development, understanding environmental issues requires having a handle on the complex interactions that lead to their production. NEO students are trained in integrating the multiple aspects of environmental issues, making this one of the most important aspects of NEO, even for those of us who are not looking directly at how we humans interact with our environment. The skills that I am using to do my research are transferrable to any number of complex issues facing the world today, and not just snail evolution!

* for more information about eco-evo-devo, check out the Abouheif lab website.